By David Velasquez and Ivan Lopez
We are in a crisis.
Southern California has zero intensive care unit capacity while Palmdale and Lancaster have some of the highest COVID-19 14-day cumulative case rates in the county.
But there is hope. Los Angeles County is currently vaccinating thousands of frontline health care workers, including many in the Antelope Valley, with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, we continue to see anti-vaccine rhetoric throughout social media. So let’s discuss the vaccine and why it is especially important for Antelope Valley residents to get vaccinated when possible.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna (approved on December 18th) vaccines are messenger RNA-based. Unlike DNA, the fundamental unit of our genetic code, messenger RNA is used by our cells to create proteins that build and maintain our body. This means that when a person receives the vaccine, cells tasked with protecting the human body acquire the messenger RNA and use it to create an inactive coronavirus protein found on COVID-19.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compares this process to, “an email sent to your immune system that shows what the virus looks like, instructions to kill it, and then–like a Snapchat message–it disappears.” In other words, the vaccines give our body a preview of the actual virus (through the inactive protein) and thereby prime our immune system to generate millions of defense cells that protect us against COVID-19.
Like all vaccines, there may be side effects including pain at the administration site, headaches, and fatigue. These side effects are usually caused by our own immune system working to create the defense cells needed to fend off future infection. Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health relates this bodily response to, “mouthwash–it’s hurting while it’s working.” In clinical trials, participants mostly experienced mild or moderate side effects with both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. More severe side effects, like life-threatening allergic reactions, were rare and have not been causally linked to either vaccine.
Both vaccines documented an impressive effectiveness rate of over 94% in clinical trials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will continue monitoring their safety and efficacy. Clearly, the direct benefit of receiving a vaccine is robust protection against COVID-19, a virus that has taken over 313,000 American lives (in our small community, over hundreds have died). Another direct benefit is its ability to decrease the risk of severe symptoms if you happen to become infected after vaccination–the vaccines significantly reduce the likelihood that you become infected, but there remains a slim chance of infection.
In addition to protecting yourself, taking the vaccine will help you protect others. People with pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. In the Antelope Valley, 1 in 7 adults have diabetes and 1 in 3 adults have high blood pressure. Rates for some cancers are higher than the Los Angeles County average and we have some of the highest incidence rates (new cases per year) of emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the country. Our role in protecting others becomes even more prominent when we consider those who may be unable to receive the vaccine due to inaccessible health care and compromised immune systems.
More obvious of a benefit is our return to a bustling economy without restrictions. How quickly we get there, though, hinges on our collective acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine.
One recent survey suggests more than 78% of Los Angeles County residents are willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but vaccine hesitancy is highest among Republicans, persons ages 30-49, rural residents, and Black adults. Palmdale and Lancaster have disproportionately high numbers of each of these groups when compared to Los Angeles County as a whole, and experts do not know what percentage of people need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. It is therefore incumbent on us to build trust within our community and follow the science.
The COVID-19 vaccine is not dangerous. COVID-19 is dangerous. Let’s not conflate the two as we attempt to move past one of the most devastating public health crises in our history. Instead, let’s adhere to safety guidelines, share evidence-based information, and exercise our privilege when we move to the front of the vaccine line. Our health and the future of our country now depend on us–it begins with believing in the COVID-19 vaccine.
About the authors: David Velasquez is a fourth-year medical student at Harvard and a long-time resident of the Antelope Valley. You can follow him on twitter @davidevelasqu. Ivan Lopez is a rising medical student and a long-time resident of the Antelope Valley. He spent the last three years as a graduate-level scientific researcher at UCLA.